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Educating the Next Generation in Conflict Resolution: A Review of “Trouble at the Watering Hole: The Adventures of Emo and Chickie” – Book Review

Review by Daniel L. Shapiro, Ph.D., Director, Harvard Law School, International Negotiation Program  

Everywhere we turn, it seems that youth are being exposed to the glorification of insult and violence, whether on social media or television, at the cinema or the toy-store lined with plastic guns and action figures.  While it is useful for kids to learn about the complexity of human nature, there’s a clear and desperate need for resources to educate children in peaceful methods of conflict resolution. 

This is why I was thrilled to read Trouble at the Watering Hole, a charming children’s book by conflict resolution experts Gregg Relyea and Joshua Weiss.  Through a simple story, the book embeds key skills children can use to resolve everyday conflicts.   This book accomplishes mountains, and I say this with empirical evidence, as I read the book to my youngest child, 5-year old Liam, and saw the impact of its ideas on the way he thinks about conflict.

This colorful book tells the tale of a group of forest animals arguing over use of a watering hole.  The moose, wolf, and deer each claim its sole use.  Emotions get heated, and a physical fight ensues.  After fighting over the water for a while, the animals realize that fighting only leads to more fighting–it doesn’t resolve anything.  Following the suggestions of a gentle-natured cub named Emo, the animals learn to listen better, ask questions about each other’s interests, and invent options that work for everyone.  This is a classic example of interest-based negotiation, translated into an engaging story for kids.  As it turns out, each of the animals wants the watering hole for a different purpose, allowing them to resolve the conflict through words rather than hooves.

Trouble at the Watering Hole proved to be an effective tool for discussing conflict resolution with my son Liam.  We sat at a neighborhood Starbucks, sipping hot chocolate and reading the book.  As the moose, deer, and wolf argued about to whom the watering hole belongs, I turned to Liam and asked him, “How should they solve their fight?”  Without missing a beat, he said, “Maybe they could share it!”  “Great idea!” I responded as my eyes widened with enthusiasm. 

The book also raised gaps in Liam’s understanding of constructive resolution.  After we finished reading it, I asked Liam, “If you are in a fight with your two older brothers, what should you do?” 

“Talk it out,” he said.

I pushed further.  “What if you get frustrated?  What should you do then?” 

Again without skipping a beat, he said, “Punch? Or kick them?” 

This opened the door to a concrete conversation between us about the problems of using violence to deal with conflict.  As our conversation winded down, I asked him what he learned from the book.  He thought for a moment, then said:  “I learned to talk things out.” 

If you are a teacher, I strongly recommend incorporating Trouble at the Watering Hole into your curriculum.  The book can be read in ten minutes, and you can pause at various points to ask the students why the conflict is escalating and what might be done.  If you are a parent, the book can be equally valuable.   The picture book is accompanied by a user-friendly manual for parents and teachers that highlights core conflict resolution skills.  The manual guides parents and teachers in how to carry on a lively conversation with children as they read the story and respond to questions.  And it includes a variety of exercises and games to help students apply the skills to their everyday lives.

As we were about to leave Starbucks, I asked Liam one final question:  “Would you want your friends to read this book?”  Without a pause, his eyes opened wide and he responded loudly, “Yesss!” 

I think there’s no better recommendation than that. 


Additional Reviews for “Trouble at the Watering Hole”

From His Holiness The Dalai Lama, Dharamsala, India

The only sensible and intelligent way of resolving differences in today’s world is through dialogue in a spirit of compromise and reconciliation. Dialogue, through which we learn to listen to other points of view, is the way to build greater trust and transparency, and is the foundation of lasting friendship. Everyone from small children up to political leaders have to understand that violence and conflict are counterproductive, that they are not a realistic way to solve our problems.

“Trouble at the Watering Hole” makes a valuable contribution to such educational efforts by imagining how animals deal with trouble round the watering hole. It is a vivid scene that children will easily understand. I congratulate the authors for their keen appreciation of the importance of finding ways to educate children so they grow up learning not to lash out at the first sign of conflict, but to approach problems more reasonably. Genuine peace and reconciliation, whether in relation to ourselves or in relation to others, comes about through taking an understanding, respectful and non-violent approach to the challenges we face

From William Ury:  Professor of Negotiation at Harvard Law School and Co-author of Getting to Yes and author The Third Side

It would be a better world if every child had the chance to learn early in life about ways to resolve conflict through cooperation. In this wonderfully simple and instructive tale for children, accompanied by a practical teacher’s guide packed with tips and exercises, Gregg Relyea and Josh Weiss make this dream possible.

From Niranjan Bhatt: President, Association of Indian Mediators and Founder and Managing Trustee of AMLEAD (Institute for Arbitration, Mediation and Legal Education and Development), Gujarat, India

Trouble at the Watering Hole” is a landmark contribution to the field of conflict resolution.  A difficult subject has been brilliantly reduced to first principles for young readers. It will lead the younger generation to a more peaceful society.  “Trouble” also can be incorporated at an advanced level in train-the-trainers programs.  The parent-teacher manual is a superb way of elaborating the practical skills used in conflict resolution.

From Kenneth Cloke: Author of Mediating Dangerously: The Frontiers of Conflict Resolution

Conflicts begin at birth, and so should our skills in collaborative negotiation and conflict resolution. But how do we teach children diverse, age-appropriate ways of responding to conflict without either talking down to them or expecting them to act like professional mediators? This highly useful approach combines simple storytelling with a well-informed guide for teachers and parents covering skills for all ages, allowing teachers, parents and children to learn the same techniques, and practice them together.

From Hitoshi Suzuki:  Co-Author of “The Settling Brain” and Professor  (2007-2015) and Lecturer, Tokai University, Japan

It will be a more peaceful planet if every child reads this book when they are very young.  It should be required reading for every student in school. The story will stimulate and awaken the better nature of people to be cooperative, reciprocal, and altruistic, at the youngest ages.

From Laila Ollapally: Founder, Center for Advanced Mediation Practice, Bangalore, India

In this world of strife and violence, “Trouble at the Watering Hole” is telling our children a story of collaboration and deeper understanding. Imprinting peace on impressionable minds. My congratulations to Gregg Relyea and Josh Weiss.

From Winston Siu, Chairman of G2G Mediation Centre Limited (Hong Kong), Family and General Mediator, Mediation Course Trainer and Mediator Accreditation Assessor

Congratulations! The children’s story with the training manual is a wonderful and effective way to let children acquire skills to resolve disputes, and to repair/enhance relationships. I can envision a more harmonious world, full of positive energy due to the impressive work of the authors.

From Roy Cheng: Author of Getting to Harmony and Founder of the Hong Kong Institute of Mediation

Most children have experienced the use of aggression and an “I’m right–you’re wrong” approach to resolving conflict.  As they grow, they internalize these approaches and continue to use them into adulthood. This book and manual will help children, as well as parents and teachers, understand interest-based negotiation and how to negotiate in a constructive and amicable way.

From Sriram Panchu:  Founder, Indian Centre for Mediation and Dispute Resolution, Chennai, India

It’s a powerful message to convey to children – that they can end disputes by talking, that they can themselves ask the right questions and find the right answers, and that they can retain friendships. In a society where conflict is on the rise and is increasingly disabling, imparting and imbibing this message is a sign of hope.

Available here.


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